Hidden is one of those mainstream discs that reminds us that there really is life and originality in accessible jazz. Chris Madsen, an extremely talented composer, makes the flow of each track continually surprising. He is also a deep thinking soloist who refuses to go for the easy lick.
The smile factor on this album is huge; the listening experience is deeply enjoyable. The music has more than one layer. On the other side of the coin, Hidden also has a very strong groove factor, not like Art Blakey, but more in the Wayne Shorter mold, and anything that can be remotely compared to Shorter has some guts.
The first three and last tracks are the strongest to these ears. "Innocence Is Bliss," a perfect beginning to the album, opens with a sparse arrangement that evokes mystery and a late night mood. Madsen's sax has a tough center with soft edges, communicating directly to the listener; the vibe created somehow evokes Wayne Shorter's albums of the '60s without copying them. It could be the elliptical lines and the spaces between the phrases, or maybe the strong, deep groove that the bass and drums set up but piano and saxophone play against. Whatever it is, the tune keeps growing as it rises and falls before coming full circle.
The next tune, "Free to Drive," creates the same mystery but now against an odd length, syncopated vamp in the bass and pianist's left hand. Madsen again plays bits and pieces of what could be thought of as the theme as the band builds beneath him, only to stop on a dime and drop way down for a killer piano solo from Birnbaum that is quite unpredictable. The drama then breaks out in the real theme, but it is like a thunderstorm and all is washed away, allowing Madsen to again say a lot with a very few notes against sparse accompaniment. The effect is almost hypnotizing as you wait for what is going to happen next.
Madsen knows how to create an arrangement that conveys a strong dramatic attraction while simultaneously allowing an improvised feel. While it's hard to be sure, the ever-changing arrangement might just be a sketch, and the band has the ESP to do different things with it every night. "County E" is just another example of the same technique. This endlessly changing seven-minute tune (this time with Birnbaum taking the solo honors) never settles down, but still feels totally coherent and indeed organic.
This is mainstream at its best, acknowledging the past while staying original and being beholden to no one. Sheer enjoyment from the first notes to the last.